Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

The Essential Nectar - Preface

The root text by Yeshe Tsöndrü, used by Geshe Rabten in his explanation and published here, presents concisely and in their order of development all the meditations and practices involved in entering the Buddhist Path and proceeding along it towards Enlightenment, up to the point at which one is ready to practise Tantra. It is written entirely in verse, so that one can easily memorize it and use it in meditation.

Historically, it stands in a long tradition of Tibetan teachings on the Lam rim, the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. The lineage goes back through the founder of the Gelukpa school, Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), to the Bengali pandit Atīsha (982-1054), who taught in Tibet for thirteen years. Atīsha himself combined into a harmonious whole two earlier Indian traditions, one concentrating mainly on Wisdom and the other emphasizing more the practice of Method, or Compassion, whose most prominent exponents were Nāgārjuna (second century AD) and Asanga (fourth century) respectively. Ultimately, of course, all these teachings derive from Shākyamuni Buddha.

The Buddhist scriptures being of immense bulk and chaotic arrangement, the need for condensed and systematic presentations of the Teachings is evident. Even while Sutras were still being written, Nāgārjuna compiled an anthology of scriptural quotations arranged under subject headings, his Sūtrasamuccaya (Compendium of Sutra). Later, about the eighth century AD, Shantideva composed a Compendium on the Trainings (Sikā-samuccaya) again basically on anthology of quotations from the Sutras. Atisha's text, the Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment (Bodhipatha-pradīpa) was a short verse outline of the Stages of the Path. His scholarly Tibetan successors expanded it into comprehensive textbooks such as Gampopa's (1079-1153) Jewel Ornament of Liberation and Tsongkhapa's Great Stages of the Path (Lam rim chen mo), organized under an elaborate hierarchy of headings and establishing each point by reasoning and scriptural citation. Tsongkhapa's massive and complex work is more an exposition of the theoretical basis of the practice than an actual meditational guide. Therefore, many shorter and more practical texts have been written, presenting the material important to meditate on; the present text is one of these.

It begins with the preliminaries that any Buddhist practitioner should perform daily—taking Refuge in the Three Jewels, generating a proper motivation of Bodhicitta and the Four lmmeasurables, offering a seven-limbed pttia to the Objects ofRefuge, and praying for success in the practice. Then the actual meditations on the Stages of the Path are described, from Guru Devotion up to Special Insight and entry into the Tantric Path.

First, the root of the Path, devotion to one's Guru or spiritual teacher, is to be cultivated. Then, one appraises one's present situation and its remarkable potentialities, the eighteen factors of opportunity and good fortune one has gained in this life although they are so rarely found. This makes it obvious that one must take advantage of this opportunity by practising the Dharma.

The rest of the Lam rim describes how one should take advantage of it. It is divided into three Paths according to the level of one's motivation. Inferior motivation, the lowest that still serves for Dharma practice, is concern for one's next life more than for happiness in this life. Intermediate motivation seeks one's complete Liberation from the round of rebirth, recognizing that even in the happiest states of samsara one is still bound to suffering. The superior motivation, that of the Bodhisattva, is not content with one's own Liberation but insists that one help all other sentient beings to become free of suffering also. If one wishes to be a Bodhisattva, one must meditate on all three Paths: each forms the basis for proceeding to the next.

This text was, of course, not written for Westerners. If it had been, it would have been necessary to preface the account of the Stages with a section on how to convince oneself of the reality of rebirth. For this simple fact of life, unquestioned by the Tibetans of a happier age, and on which most of the arguments presented depend, has been rigorously suppressed in our culture for some one-and-a-half millennia. First, the Christian church banned the teaching of rebirth (implicitly accepted by the early church fathers), no doubt for fear that it would encourage laziness, while latterly the materialist orthodoxy of our own day pours ridicule on all reports of phenomena inconsistent with its dogmas, greeting their authors as liars and charlatans, or at best gullible fools.

Rebirth may be established by logical proof, appeal to authority, or observation. However, since the “proofs” take as their premises assumptions about the nature of mind that are just as difficult to establish and contradictory to Western orthodoxy as the fact of rebirth itself, and the sceptics have their own authorities, observation is by far the most convincing. Here, there are one's own observations, and those of others. One can acquire the power of recalling one's previous lives if, having realized Quietude (verses 385-393 below), one goes on to develop the four dhyānas. However, to reach this point one must already have traversed most of the Stages of the Path here described, so to start with, unless one resorts to methods not traditionally Buddhist, one must rely on the testimony of others. That available in print ranges from Dr. Ian Stevenson's investigations, with meticulous scientific method, of numerous cases where children have spontaneously recalled their preceding life, through life stories of Tibetan Rinpoches, to a flood of recent literature vividly describing recollections of past lives gained through hypnosis, Hindu yoga methods, or indeed yoga methods learned in past lives in Ancient Egypt.

A related stumbling-block for the sceptical Westerner is the supposed existence of realms that we cannot detect—the hells and the realms of pretas and gods. On this matter, apart from numerous reports of ghosts, the Western evidence is comparatively scanty. In the literature just mentioned, I have so far found only one instance each of people remembering past lives as an animal, a preta, and what could be described as a special sort of hell being. However, this is not surprising. It is clear from the accounts that the past lives that people recall are those which exert a strong karmic influence on the present life. Since it is taught that when born in a realm of woe one has virtually no chance to create karma leading to a human rebirth, there is no reason to expect people to recall such births. And again, if high rebirth is as rare as is taught, one would not expect people to remember lives as gods.

On the other hand, it may be objected that the intervals between the past human lives recalled by one person are rarely more than a few centuries, and leave no room for intervening stays in hell or preta realms of the duration described in verses 225, 228 and 234. To this, one might point out that the large numbers found in Buddhist texts are often not to be taken literally but are there to give a certain impression in meditation, and who can doubt that subjectively even a second of the cataclysmic suffering of Avici would indeed seem like years?

But if these durations are not meant literally, maybe the whole idea of realms of woe is really symbolic, a kind of stylization of sufferings one can actually encounter in the human realm? This interpretation is not impossible, although it is clearly not what the author intended. Deluged with information about the world we live in, we of the West at least cannot escape the dreadful truth—that virtually any form of torture which the human mind can imagine, humans actually do inflict on other humans. Moreover, considering that there are very likely more inhabited planets in this galaxy alone than there are human beings on Earth, it would not be reasonable to suppose that some are not a great deal more unpleasant than ours.

The physical tortures of the hells and other realms of woe are also a practical way to visualize mental tortures, which the mind inflicts on itself as a result of having harmed others. Thus whether or not they represent a literal, physical reality, they certainly represent a psychological reality. No justification can be found for dismissing these painful meditations as mere morbid fantasy, however comforting this might be.

The style of the text is exceptionally clear and straightforward, almost as if written for children—there is none of the convoluted grammar and excessive compression found in philosophical works, nor is the meaning concealed beneath heavy blankets of flowery metaphors. The author just states one idea plainly, then moves on to the next. His language includes a number of modern words not found in the Scriptures, so it would be inappropriate to translate it into an archaic, “biblical” style.

None of the material is the author's invention: all the details of the hells and so on come from standard texts, and the similes given here and there are likewise traditional, mostly originating in the Sutras. His contribution is to select what to put in, and give it harmonious expression in verse.

Three metres are employed in the body of the text. Most verses are in the commonest of Tibetan metres, nine-syllable lines with the odd syllables stressed. However, the sections on the opportune, fortunate rebirth and death (verses 140-209) are in an unusual metre of eight-syllable lines, stressed on the first and then the even syllables. This awkward rhythm, with its isolated first syllable, gives a restless, uneasy effect, appropriate to the sense of urgency that these meditations are designed to inculcate. I regret I found it too difficult to reproduce this in English. The sections on suffering are also distinguished by a special metre—fifteen-syllable lines, stressed on the odd syllables, as is normal, but divided into half-lines of eight plus seven syllables. The effective line length is thus shorter than elsewhere, producing a quickening of pace, suggestive of the ceaseless rain of sufferings that falls on us as long as we are in samsara.

In English one is not free to omit syllables virtually at will, as is done in Tibetan, so one must allow extra unstressed syllables. However, I have found it perfectly possible to maintain the same number of stressed syllables as in the original, without departing from a strictly literal rendering appreciably more than one would wish to do in a prose translation. There seems to be simply no need to resort to prose translation with a work of this nature.

Geshe Rabten delivered some thirty-one discourses on this text, at Tharpa Choeling on Friday afternoons spread over the period January 1981 to June 1982.

In adapting this course into book form I have freely rearranged the material so as to bring out the underlying logical structure as clearly as possible; for example, when Geshe Rabten went over a topic again at the start of another discourse, this recapitulation has been merged with the original discussion. Unnecessary repetitions have been reduced, bearing in mind that a certain amount of repetition is intrinsic to the subject, but although the edited version has about forty percent as many words as the original oral translation, it is believed that nothing significant has been omitted. Translations of recognizable technical terms have been standardized, and headings superimposed, after the root text and Lam rim chen mo. The division into “Meditations” follows Yeshe Tsondrii's marking of the end of a section with a request for inspiration or with a change of metre. Additions made for the sake of clarity are enclosed in square brackets, and should be in strict accord with the tradition within which Geshe Rabten was teaching—in fact, most additions longer than a few words are quoted directly from the Lam rim chen mo, as indicated in the notes. While I have once or twice allowed myself to comment from the viewpoint of a Western scientist, such remarks are confined to the notes. Where the notes cite authorities in apparent conflict with Geshe Rabten's explanation, this should not be construed as implying that the latter is in any way inferior, but merely that a range of legitimate opinions exists. Quotations could not always be identified with certainty from the oral translation, but those given are at least very similar and are authentic. Except in one instance, they are in my own translation from the Tibetan.

The root text has been printed as a consecutive whole, not broken up by commentary, for the convenience of those who wish to use the text for its intended purpose, namely meditation. The explanation is meant to be studied outside meditation sessions, while the root text is skilfully designed to give all the outlines one needs for the session itself.

The translation of the root text was made and released to students early in Geshe Rabten's course. This was possible thanks to the Lam rim teachings I had received from Geshe Thubten Lodan, Lama Zasep Tulku, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, Geshe Rabten and others. Comparison with the existing prose translation by Geshe Lobsang Tharchin and Benjamin and Deborah Alterman greatly facilitated checking and resulted in many improvements. Some further revisions were made subsequently in the light of Geshe Rabten's teachings.

Tharpa Choeling,
Apri11981, revised June 1983.